“I had never kissed my son before. I know it sounds strange to say, but I had never kissed him in his 14 years of life. Not once I had stooped my head and put my lips to him, to taste him, the oils of his skin, to breathe him in, flesh of my flesh.”
That’s how Kenneth Chacón begins a poem in his book of poems. The slim volume tells about his life of drugs, gangs, loss and an improbable journey back to a more stable life forever shaded by the past.
Chacón teaches English at Fresno City College. His book – “The Cholo Who Said Nothing” – was published earlier this year by Turning Point.
At 41, Chacón has found some peace and some success – things he didn’t care about as a member of the Northside Fresno Bulldogs.
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That he could kiss his teenage son one Sunday in church – a “blessing” he calls it today – was once beyond what his mind could imagine. The crystal meth he smoked gave him plenty of wild thoughts but never the inclination to perform simple acts of love.
I met Chacón when I took a poetry course from him at City College. In class, he’s blunt, edgy and filled with nervous energy. In his office – away from the classroom stage where all instructors perform – he’s more relaxed but no less straightforward.
A fellow gang member named Rodney pushed him to go to City College and even drove him there in a lowrider.
He tells his story without asking for pity. A self-described “mama’s boy,” he was devastated after his mother died of cancer when he was 13. His parents had divorced earlier, and he had a distant and strained relationship with his father.
His father – now dead – never hugged him, Chacón said. “I know what a difficult world this can be when your father doesn’t show you love,” he added. “You’re dying of thirst.”
In that last statement, Chacón shows that he understands the power of language. His mother was a voracious reader, and her example sparked his interest in literature. As a teenager, he rewrote lyrics to heavy metal and gangsta rap songs. He wrote poems as a gang member high on drugs, and several are in his book.
They’re raw – Chacón describes them as “rants.” In one poem, he writes: “Lord, Lord, You’ve known me since I was that chubby, pig-fleshed ball of goo, unhappy squatter, in my mother’s womb. Truthfully, I’m a slave to sin and there’s not much hope for liberation . . . ”
If you think of his rants as shouts from an angry, paranoid gang member, then the poem about kissing his son is like a whisper from a hopeful, man happy to know about redemption. The road from shout to whisper led through classes at City College, the University of California, Davis and Fresno State. Chacón returned to teach at City College in 2002.
Various people helped Chacón make the journey. A fellow gang member named Rodney pushed him to go to City College and even drove him there in a lowrider.
Michael Roberts, a now-retired City College instructor, encouraged Chacón to attend UC Davis. Chacón went and wore a red gang rag in his pocket, but no one in bucolic Davis cared much about his gangster act.
He couldn’t see it at the time, but Rodney, Roberts and others were offering him hope that things could be different. Now recognizing that, he wants to do the same for others.
Chacón has worked in violence-plagued neighborhoods through his church, and he gave a talk about hope this spring at City College that was well received. He also spoke about overcoming the bad things in life to Latino graduates at the college in May.
“I am looking for other opportunities to give back,” he said. “My past bleeds into everything I do. It makes me who I am.”
Closer to home, he’s worked to be a better father to his four children. The oldest – the boy he kissed that Sunday morning in church – is now a 23-year- old man.
“He’s the sweetest kid on earth,” Chacón said. “One of those unconditional-lover types. He’s the kind of guy I wish I’d always been.”
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org